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Why PR is important crucial in age of rapid tech changes

public relations with Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

Public relations (PR) is the inthing. Businesses executives the world over have come to recognize the value of a strategic PR campaign.

We are talking about pro-active campaigns that have helped launch new start-ups, magnified the value of the highly contested tech sector and dignified the sensitive financial and health sectors.

So it becomes important, especially for the Zimbabwean market, to get to grips with what the profession really is. This is so as for critical personalities in organisations, from marketers to CEOs, from HR executives to Boards to rid of them of some misconceptions. Such misconceptions tend to reduce PR’s effectiveness in solving some of business’s enduring challenges.

PR isn’t there to replace marketing, but to complement it. There is no war between the two, neither should one overshadow the other. The two have clear and distinct roles to play. With a few exceptions, public relations is at best when it builds visibility and shapes perceptions over time. It is not set to drive demand.

That is the work of marketers who use various forms of paid publicity and content to increase interest in a product or service.

Good PR programmes will back up a brand marketing campaign by educating prospective customers and boosting a brand message.

There is a greater coming together of PR and marketing than ever before. Because of the social media explosion, the tactics available to a PR campaign have expanded exponentially.

“Whereas PR used to be considered ‘below the line’ within a marketing budget and was loosely [and inaccurately] defined as ‘coverage you don’t pay for’ in contrast to paid advertising, there’s now a significant grey area between PR and marketing. What we call PR can include paid influencer marketing, content or inbound marketing, social content, and other varieties of paid creative services,” observes Crenshaw Communications, PR consultants.

For us as consultants, PR has become more specialised in recent times. In other words, being a “jack of all trades” tends to diminish the value of the profession when clients seek targeted services. Consultants or agencies now operate individual profit centres that may be organised by sector, from tech to health and wellness to financial services.

There are also deep specialist expertise by PR function. Some of us individuals and agencies concentrate strictly on reputation management, media relations, or crisis management. Others are more publicity-oriented, and still others are focused in that grey area between earned and paid media.

Any business seeking PR services for the first time should be aware of both vertical and horizontal specialist models and the ways in which they may fit their needs. A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer advisable.

PR is not the fire brigade. It’s not about quick fixes, called at the last moment because of poor decision-making. Good PR takes time to build and sits at the decisionmaking table.

“For many companies the most visible manifestation of the work is the earned media placement, that is, an article, interview, or segment that features their brand.

But like any kind of marketing content, the brand stories are the culmination of weeks or even months of work. They’re typically preceded by category and brand research and a differentiated positioning to set up the story,” says an expert.

Media messages and various materials are needed for an all-out media outreach. Most importantly, each contact is part of a plant to develop and spur momentum. They all work together.

PR is a two-way street. People who study classic PR theory have come across Grunig’s four models of the profession. The most ideal of the four is the two-way symmetrical model where public relations experts depend on two-way communication to position their brand among end-users. Free flow of information takes place between the organisation and its stakeholders, employees, investors and vice-versa.

Conflicts and misunderstandings are resolved through mutual discussions and communication. A two-way communication takes place between both the parties and information flows in its desired form.

The feedback from stakeholders and target audiences is also taken into consideration.

At its essence, PR is about telling a brand story, but a good team should also serve as a source of feedback, intelligence, and insight on what target audiences are thinking and saying.

Businesspeople who aren’t using PR tools and tactics to better understand customer, influencers, employees, or partners are probably not maximising their investment.

A top PR programme should improve relationships with key audiences, but not by merely broadcasting through media. It can and should work in both directions.

Earned media is the beginning, not the end. Most companies still think of publicity, or earned media, as a successful outcome of a PR campaign, but the coverage is often the beginning.

The way we use consumer news and other content has changed drastically, so successful promotion of earned media is essential to success.

A good PR team will urge clients to promote their coverage on social media, include it in sales presentations and proposals, share it with stakeholders in company communications, add it to the website press centre, and merchandise it to get more media coverage, of course.

But PR is still about the telling of the story.

Crenshaw say that the tools and platforms have changed and grown more sophisticated (and in some cases, data-driven), but the heart of a good PR programme is the story.

We have available to us a number of ways to shape a brand narrative, from influencer videos to high-level opinion content.

But what hasn’t changed is the importance of the story and its power to grab someone’s attention, engage them, and influence their attitude or behaviour.

Lenox Mhlanga is lead consultant at Magna Carta Reputation Management. He also serves on the council of the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations. He can be contacted at lenox@magnacarta.co.zw or +263 772 400 656.

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